The incessant whirlwind of the 1.5 m diameter and 6.5 m high cylinder makes all conversation futile. A slight smell of heat emanates from the heart of the most imposing hydroelectric project in Africa: the great Renaissance Dam or “Gerd”, according to the English acronym. In 2022, two turbines converting water into electricity were inaugurated. Eleven others will gradually follow by 2025. Enough to double Ethiopia’s electricity production, and above all to win the colossal challenge launched twelve years ago.
“Only 46-47% of Ethiopians currently have access to electricity. This dam will help change the lives of rural populations,” summarizes engineer Ephrem Woldekidan, deputy project manager of Gerd. For those who will not be able to benefit from it due to the impossibility of installing high voltage lines in the steepest parts of Ethiopia, the authorities are banking on solar energy and geothermal energy. Excess power generated by the dam will be sold to border states.
A new session of talks in December
The national jewel is nestled between the green reliefs of the Benishangul-Gumuz region, in the northwest of the country. The Blue Nile has its source 260 kilometers away, at Lake Tana. Then, around twenty kilometers after the dam, it continues its route to Sudan where it joins the other arm of the Nile, the White Nile. It then crosses Egypt before flowing into the Mediterranean. The two nations downstream of the dam demand guarantees regarding their hydraulic supply. A new session of talks will be held in mid-December in Addis Ababa to try to reach an agreement. Funded by the government, private donations, local businesses and the diaspora, the cost of the project amounts to more than 5 billion dollars (4.57 billion euros). A sum still being paid.
Ephrem Woldekidan is one of the workers who willingly gave part of their salary for a year to finance the construction site. The engineer talks about what remains to be done, pointing to the center of the dam where the artificial lake, or “reservoir”, turns into a gigantic waterfall: “Twenty meters of additional wall will be erected between January and August 2024. Construction will then be completed. »
Efforts will then focus on the remaining turbines. This final phase was delayed due to the incompetence of certain agents and probable corruption within the Ethiopian firm initially mandated. Laying the foundation stone in 2011, then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi planned to complete the Gerd seven years later. It was Abiy Ahmed, head of government since 2018, who relaunched the project by calling on French and Chinese service providers – Italians were already taking care of the civil engineering work.
A water quantity problem
Among the other difficulties encountered before reaching full activity of the dam, climatic hazards. “Precipitation and therefore the flow of the Blue Nile are very affected by El Niño and La Niña,” explains Mekdelawit Messay, Nile researcher. These two climatic phenomena, linked to an abnormally high or low temperature on the surface of the Pacific Ocean, disrupt the quantity of water reaching the reservoir. Under current conditions, the water level will only be enough to turn, on average, half of the turbines.
The popular support which accompanied this pharaonic project has itself eroded, despite the soothing speeches of the regime in place. This disenchantment is also linked to the two years of civil war in the northern region of Tigray. “When the project was launched, the Tigrayans, like other peoples, fully supported it,” recalls a lawyer from this territory. But the war which opposed them in Addis Ababa between 2020 and 2022 broke the unity of the country, taking with it the interest of part of the peoples who constitute Ethiopia for the Gerd. »
An extraordinary building
With a height of 145 m and a length of 1.8 km, the dam has a storage capacity of 79 km3 for a water surface of 1,561 km2 (roughly that of Essonne).
The first stone was laid on April 2, 2011. Five years later, more than 4 million tons of concrete were poured and the first two turbines were installed.
On February 20, 2022, the first turbine was started. Six months later, the second turbine produces electricity.
More than 6,000 workers and engineers are currently working on this site, the vast majority of them Ethiopians.
At full capacity, the dam is expected to provide more than 5,150 megawatts, which is the equivalent of the production of five reactors of a nuclear power plant.